Extending timeouts

USAA rules allow one 10-second timeout, by each player, per game. With a little planning, a 10-second timeout can be stretched to 30 seconds or more.

First, what are the main reasons to call a timeout?

  • Gain extra time to rethink strategy and tactics
  • Catch your breath
  • Disrupt the rhythm of an opponent

Normally timeouts are called because a player wants extra time to rethink strategies and tactics, and/or the player is tired. In these scenarios, the longer the timeout, the better. To increase the length of a timeout, take advantage of all of air hockey’s clocks.

Here’s an example of how to turn a 10-second timeout into 30-plus seconds:

  1. When you are scored on by your opponent, you have 10 seconds to take the puck out of your goal. Use all 10 seconds.
  2. Once you take the puck out of your goal and place it on the table, you have seven seconds to take a shot. Use all seven seconds before taking your timeout.
  3. After calling timeout you’re given 10 seconds, plus a grace period by the referee, that is normally around five seconds, to make sure that both players are ready.

All in all, this equals to about 30 seconds of no play. The key to extending timeouts is to not rush and stay composed prior to saying the word, “timeout.”

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Top-10 most common mistakes in air hockey

Here is my list of the worst errors that I see crop up all of the time, and I am guilty of some of them just like the rest of us. If you are a left-handed player, flip the info in this blog – it is written from a right-handers’ perspective. In my next blog, I will start referring to left and right-wall banks as “strong-walls” and “weak-walls” in a way that will make sense equally to left and right-handed players.

#1: Defensive stance

Leaning your shoulders forward and your torso over the table on defense is by far the most common error in air hockey. I would estimate that 80% of players, across all skill levels, have incorrect stances on defense. Tim Weissman, 10-time world champion, expertly covers the correct defensive stance in his instructional video:

(From 2:30-4:28)

Why is leaning over the table such a bad mistake? If you are leaning over the table you won’t be able to stop under banks effectively because the forward lean makes moving backward more difficult. Leaning out over the table also puts you in more of a charge-and-snag mentality. On defense blocking the shot must be the first priority, and even though snagging missed shots is important, it is secondary to blocking shots. Blocks are most easily achieved when you have proper defensive mechanics:

  • Right leg forward and bent at the knee
  • Right knee resting on or just off the table
  • Left leg back
  • Weight balanced on the balls of feat
  • Torso positioned approximately 90 degrees to the floor over the center of body
  • Left hand rests on the railing’s edge

In the history of air hockey, there have been 12 national champions. 10 of the 12 players used the defense that I am describing above. Bob Dubuisson and Jose Mora did not. They account for 7 of the 63 titles and they won their championships with great offense. They have the worst 2 defenses out of all of the national champions.

#2: Overly complicated shots and drifts

A forehand cross at 6-6? A fast reverse circle drift followed by a right-wall-over from left-of-center with an exaggerated time delay? Chase crosses? Offense has such an advantage that there is no need for such shots. Doing overly complicated shots and drifts is a tell-tale sign of a player that does not correctly understand offense.

In practice, you should work on the 6 major shots: The cut, cross, and under and overs to both banks. You should also be able to execute these shots from left and right-of-center, with multiple releases. However when you are within a match, you should primarily be scoring with 2-4 shots and only a handful of basic drifts and releases. Too much variety and complication is normally an indication that the offense does not have a plan of attack.

#3: Slow adjustments on defense

On average, there are about 30-35 goals scored against you in a losing set. You have to adjust rapidly! Adjusting to a cut shot after it has sunk on you 10 times is a surefire way to lose a match.

Players typically never adjust in a match or when they do it is too late. You need to be able to effectively adjust on defense in 1-6 shots.

To timely adapt your defense look for the following tells from offense:

  • Can you simply react in time to the speed of the puck?
  • Is the offense tipping their shots by shooting from different locations? Do they hit their cut from left-of-center at the line and their right-wall-under from right-of-center a foot back from the line?
  • Are you able to eliminate certain shots based on drifts? Do they ever shoot left-walls and crosses out of a diamond drift?
  • Patterns. Are they capable of hitting the same shot back-to-back even when you have correctly blocked it? Do they always shoot straights at 6-6? Are they more likely to follow a right-wall-under with a right-wall-over? How do they respond to being incorrectly charged?
  • Release
  • Hand positioning
  • Relation of mallet to puck
  • Body positioning

#4: Not aware of what tactics are least and most effective

If you are playing an unknown top-level pro and you scored a cut to make it 6-6, what shot should you shoot at 6-6?

Most players hit shots that lack purpose. What has worked in the past is most likely to work in the future. Players of all skill levels are too reluctant to hit exact copies of a shot that is scoring. Exploit what is working by using it until it no longer works.

What shots are being scored on you, at what percentage, and in what order? You do not need to know the exact answers to these questions, but you should at least be able to give an approximation, even during matches. If you are unaware of what is scoring on you and your opponent, how can you effectively adjust?

And to answer the question at the beginning of this section, if you have no other information, you must shoot a cut. Do not give someone credit for adjusting until they do so.

#5: Tipping shots by location

Offenses typically hit their shots from where they are most comfortable: Left-walls from left-of-center, crosses and cuts from center, and right-walls from right-of-center. It is like reading a cheap novel when a player does this.

On offense you must be able to strike the under and complimentary straight from the exact same location. When I enter a match, this is the first thing that I try to make the defense aware of. I want the defense to realize that I have the ability to hit the under and its complimentary straight from the exact same location, while using the same drift and release. Once I feel that I have “explained” this to the defense, I then may or may not start hitting the shots from different locations depending on how my opponent is reacting.

#6: Unders lack correct velocity

Unders should travel at the max speed that the table will allow the puck to move without flying off. In practice you should work on increasing the speed of your unders until you have the ability to strike the puck and cause it to leave the table. From there you can scale back the speed of your unders depending on table conditions. Think of it like this: If you are never hitting the puck off the table on unders, you are not striking the puck with enough power.

Unders must be fast, really fast. They are the foundation of offense, especially vs. a pyramid defense. The defense must always be kept in check with unders. If you have a fast and accurate under, the defense cannot wander; in other words it makes it very risky for the defense to attempt to snag pucks. A fast under commands respect and opens up straights, overs, and it also keeps the defense on its heels. Without an under there is nothing that can score; all straights and both over-the-mallets can be blocked by a single out position on defense.

#7: Mallet selection

There is no need for hard mallets or low-tops. Offense is the easier part of air hockey. Your mallet selection should be geared around defense. A soft or original high-top mallet is the only thing that makes sense. With a high-top more hand contacts the mallet, and that means more control.

By and large, generating enough power on offense to reach critical mass is not difficult. Defense and puck control are the more difficult facets of air hockey skill, and mallet selection should cater to these areas.

A soft or original high-top mallet is the more effective material on defense. It is softer so the mallet deadens the puck upon impact of an oncoming shot and also makes catching your own missed shots easier.

Of the 64 national championships, 59 were won with high-tops and 5 with low-tops – Davis Lee won 2, Robert Hernandez won 2, and Owen Geraldo won 1. Davis modifies and extends his low-top’s nub so much that it is almost like a half-top. Owen Geraldo had an outstanding defense but his offense was the worst of any champion in air hockey’s history. If anyone needed a low-top to assist with a sub-par offense, Owen did.

#8: Recentering

Not recentering on defense is the most egregious error that can be made. Most players of all skill levels, pros included, seem not to even be aware of the concept of recentering.

#9: Puck control

Puck control has a wide definition, from the ability to maneuver the puck to catching it after executing a shot and resetting. The mistake that I see players make, largely amateur to pro skill level, is simply hitting the puck when it crosses the centerline or catching the puck and then willy-nilly hitting a shot based on where the puck just happens to be. Normally, you should catch the puck, and then establish control by taking it to a fixed location before executing a drift and shot. Think of it like a pitcher in baseball catching the ball after he has made a pitch, then returning to the mound and using a controlled windup prior to throwing an assortment of different pitches.

After you execute a shot your ideal next move is to:

1) Have the shot score. (Very acceptable.)

2) Catch the puck in front of you. (Acceptable.)

3) Catch the puck from behind after it bounces of your own back rail. (Risk involved. Less room for error.)

4) Chase the puck with an intentional off-goal shot. (More risk involved. The defense has the chance to interfere with a semi-controlled shot.)

5) Chase the puck with an intentional on-goal shot. (Even more risk involved. The defense has the chance to block and interfere with a semi-controlled shot.)

6) Volley the puck. (Most risk involved. Volleys/1-2s are the most uncontrolled shots. An aware defense should look to interfere when these shots are attempted.)

#10: Skipping offensive steps

On offense, players typically try to advance too fast. I think that there is a progression of learning in air hockey offense, and that you should master each step before moving on to the next. If you do not you will have holes in your game and you will not be able to effectively exploit defensive errors when they present themselves.

First players should concentrate on the backhand right-wall-under and cut. The order of progression for the right-wall-under and cut should be as follows:

  • Centerline from the middle of the table strike location
  • Still puck
  • Pump fakes
  • Time delays
  • Intentional off-goals
  • 1-2s
  • Right-of-center strike location
  • Left-of-center strike location
  • Horizontal drift at the line off the left rail, then the right rail
  • Open-V drift off the left rail (1/2 diamond drift), then the right rail
  • Left-to-right diagonal drift
  • Vertical drift
  • Right-to-left-diagonal drift
  • L-drift
  • Diamond drift
  • Back-of-table strike location (pot shots)

Once the above has been mastered, add in the right-wall over-the-mallet bank. Next repeat the process for left-wall-under and cross. Then add in the left-wall over-the-mallet, forehands, off-speeds, chases, and double banks.

If you only have limited time to practice, once a week or less, you should almost exclusively work on right-wall-unders and cuts with time delays, pump fakes and 2 simple drifts (the drifts higher on the list above). If you are working on more than this and not practicing at least 2 days a week, you are probably skipping ahead in your development, spreading yourself too thin, and have holes in your offense.

***

My next blog is titled “Physical Chess”. I will discuss how to progress through multiple offensive attacks at the same time.

*Originally published July 5, 2013

Practice with purpose

The goal of practice is not to win; the goal is to improve. Winning is secondary. To improve, practice with purpose.

A little bit of history

When I started playing Air Hockey in 1993, I spent twice as many hours on the table as I do now, yet my game was not as sharp. I was playing to win and have fun. I still do this, but these are no longer my primary reasons. Now I practice to improve, which leads to my ultimate goal of winning.

Yes, I have logged a lot of hours of play over the last two decades, but most of my recent improvement is because I have learned how to make better use of my time spent on the table. Clear objectives and a framework for each session, laid out weeks to months in advance, is how I get the most of my practice.

19 years ago my typical schedule looked something like this:

Monday: 10 games
Tuesday: 25 games – do not let anyone win!
Wednesday: 10 games
Thursday: 25 games – try not to let anyone get to six points!
Friday: OFF
Saturday: Play a weekly tournament
Sunday: OFF
Repeat next week

As you can see, not only was I just playing games, which does have its benefits, I had no specifics to work on. Nothing was planned. A much better way to practice, if your goal is to improve, is to have a long-term structure to your sessions. Since we do not have tournaments year-round, the best way to construct a schedule is to make sure that you peak for major tournaments and important matches.

Schedules really do matter

I divide my practice calendar into three phases: 1) New tactics 2) Improve weaknesses 3) Solidify strengths.

New tactics
In this phase I work on new aspects of my game that might be potentially valuable: Reactionary defense, off-speed LWUs, etc. After developing these new tactics I identify which ones are successful and can be used as part of my game. I discard the new tactics that do not work. At the end of this phase I hope to have one or two new weapons (offensive or defensive) that I can add to my arsenal.

Improve weaknesses
It helps to have a good partner who can identify your weaknesses and work on improving them with you. Also, candidly asking a better player “What are my three weakest areas?” is a good way to evaluate your game.

Solidify strengths
Tuning up your strengths should not be overlooked. It is your strengths that will ultimately win matches. I do not spend quite as much time in this phase, but I make sure that my strengths are always the last things that I work on before heading into a major tournament or match.

Drill baby, drill

To work on new tactics, improve weaknesses, and solidify strengths, I approach each practice session with clear-cut goals. To meet these goals I use specifically designed drills. For example, if my goal were to defend straight shots from left-of-center more effectively, an appropriate drill would be to play a game vs. my opponent in which we both only execute shots from the left-of-center. For this drill I would weight straight shots as 5 points, since I want to work on my defense against straights from left-of-center, and weight RWUs as 1 point. I do this because keeping an element of game play and decision-making involved is important even during drills so that they do not become mindless. (At the end of this article, I have examples of more drills).

Practice works, if done right

Warm ups
Before each practice session and tournament match, I do the exact same 20-minute warm up. This is beneficial for a few reasons: 1) It helps prevent injuries 2) Using the same routine gets me in a consistent mindset 3) I use part of my warm ups to improve on areas of my game that need constant attention.

Stretching – 5 minutes
Puck control – 5 minutes of various drifts and maneuvers
Defensive mechanics – 2 minutes of defensive movements
Chase drills – 3 minutes of chasing the puck along both rails
Puck snagging – 5 minutes of snagging missed straights and overs with a partner. I added this to my warm ups because it has been a problem area for me and it is an excellent way to wake up my reflexes.

Practice breakdown
I divide practice into 50% drills and 50% sets. Since mechanics are very important in Air Hockey, and most of the drills are mechanics based, 50% of practice allotted to drills is appropriate. The first part of each session is drills. After drills I end with sets, which keep decision-making sharp and are a great incentive to play intense towards the end of practice.

Final preparation
One week before a major tournament or match I only play sets and take 15 minutes breaks between the sets and a full minute between games in order to simulate tournament play.

How it looks in practice

The below schedule is word for word from my calendar and was created 3 months before the 2012 Las Vegas World Championships. It was designed specifically for my strengths and weaknesses and is not applicable for other players. The takeaway should be the amount of granularity.

New tactics phase
March 28 – 1.6 hrs, forehand line attack
March 29 – 1.7 hrs, hard RWO
March 30 – 1.8 hrs, forehand from left-of-center
March 31 – 1.9 hrs, still puck attack
April 1 – OFF
April 2 – 1.7 hrs, left-to-right drift
April 3 – 1.8 hrs, move defense out 3 inches
April 4 – 1.9 hrs, reactionary defense
April 5 – 2.0 hrs, hard LWO
April 6 – 2.1 hrs, bizarro CUTS and CROSSES
April 7 – 2.2 hrs, shorten release
April 8 – OFF
April 9 – 1.8 hrs, up tempo offense
April 10 – 1.9 hrs, reactionary defense
April 11 – 2.0 hrs, off-speed LWU
April 12 – OFF (vacation)
April 13 – OFF
April 14 – OFF
April 15 – OFF
April 16 – 1.9 hrs, hard LWO

Improve weaknesses phase
April 17 – 2.0 hrs, strike RWU and CUT with conviction
April 18 – 2.1 hrs, offensive patterns
April 19 – 2.2 hrs, defense reaction time
April 20 – 2.3 hrs, off-speeds
April 21 – 2.4 hrs, reverse circle drift, Mitic sets
April 22 – OFF
April 23 – 2.0 hrs, RWU from left-of-center
April 24 – 2.1 hrs, defense reaction time
April 25 – 2.2 hrs, RWO from left-of-center
April 26 – 2.3 hrs, OVERS
April 27 – 2.4 hrs, offensive variety, combine multiple drifts
April 28 – 2.5 hrs, offensive patterns
April 29 – OFF

Solidify strengths phase
April 30 – 2.1 hrs, right-to-left drift
May 1 – 2.2 hrs, CROSS
May 2 – 2.3 hrs, RWs from multiple areas of the table
May 3 – 2.4 hrs, quick drift LWU
May 4 – 2.5 hrs, CUT from right-of-center
May 5 – OFF
May 6 – 2.2 hrs, puck control
May 7 – 2.3 hrs, LWO
May 8 – 2.4 hrs, RWU defensive mechanics
May 9 – 2.5 hrs, LWU/LWO/CROSS combos + sets
May 10 – 2.6 hrs, problem areas + sets
May 11 – OFF
May 12 – IL STATE
May 13 – CHALLENGE MATCH
May 14 – OFF

Revisit new tactics
May 15 – 2.7 hrs, short release, 3 quarter diamond, LWU defensive movement

Revisit improve weaknesses
May 16 – 2.8 hrs, puck movement, hard overs, snagging

Revisit solidify strengths
May 17 – 2.9 hrs, LWU, CROSS, CUT from right-of-center, quick drift RWU

Tournament preparation
May 18 – 3.0 hrs, sets
May 19 – 3.2 hrs, sets
May 20 – 3.4 hrs, sets
May 21 – 3.6 hrs, sets
May 22 – OFF
May 23 – 3.8 hrs, sets + problem areas, tactics for specific opponents
May 24 – 4.0 hrs, sets
May 25 – OFF
May 26 – WORLDS
May 27 – WORLDS

A few more drills to talk about

Straights only drill – Play games in which you and your opponent only execute straight shots. You cannot play your defense out any further than normal and you cannot charge. This helps build defensive discipline around re-centering and not flinching. It also forces the offense to use creative drifts to score.

Snag drill – Have your partner intentionally miss overs and try to snag them. Whoever snags the most out of 25 is the winner. This drill helps with transition play, puck control, and reflex development.

Off-speed unders drill – Play normal games except off-speed unders are worth three points instead of one. The offense should attempt tons of off-speed unders, which will help the defenses improve their mechanics for pulling for banks and not sweeping or coming all the way back to the goal. This drill has the added benefit of helping to develop off-speed unders.

Stop reading and…

Get out there and make the most of your practices by having well defined goals and structure for each session. Develop a schedule and find a partner that will help you practice with intent and not just smack the puck around – no matter how fun that may be.

I hope this helps even one person :)

*Originally published July 23, 2012